It's been a long week for many people across the U.S., as severe storms have plagued the country, killing at least 145 people in less than seven days. The death toll in Joplin, Mo., alone is now up to 126, and state officials on Thursday released a list of 232 people who are still missing after last Sunday's violent EF-5 tornado. (The list originally included 1,500 names, but many of those people have since been located.) Another 16 people were killed by storms in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Kansas Tuesday and Wednesday, while three more people died in metro Atlanta Thursday. Overall, more than 250 tornadoes have been reported to the National Weather Service this week, pushing the 2011 tornado season's death toll to 506. The deadliest season on record was 1953, when tornadoes killed a total of 519 people.

Only a few tornadoes developed as the storms churned to the east Thursday and Friday, but strong winds and heavy rain still caused plenty of damage. Falling trees killed two people in Atlanta and one in nearby Mableton Thursday night, while flash floods inundated highways and disrupted flights at several airports. Parts of Appalachia and New England received 3 to 4 inches of rain in just a few hours, spurring localized flooding that could continue into the weekend, AccuWeather reports. The last remnants of this week's storms are expected to burn out over New England Saturday and Sunday, potentially offering a much-needed respite this Memorial Day weekend after a week of seemingly nonstop thunderstorms.

One region that won't get a break from its weather woes this weekend, however, is the Mississippi River Delta. Its historic flooding has been softened somewhat by the Morganza Spillway — which diverted some of the Mississippi River into the Atchafalaya River Basin — but it's still swollen to a degree not seen since the Great Depression, and a week of torrential rain hasn't helped matters much. The Atchafalaya River is forecast to break its flood record from 1973, the Baton Rouge Advocate reports, while hundreds of people remain evacuated from their homes. Still, after all the devastation seen in Joplin and elsewhere this week, some Delta residents say the floodwaters aren't so bad. "This little trickling from underneath — that's nothing," says one lifelong resident of Morgan City, La., describing leaks that have appeared in a nearby seawall. "My hosepipe puts out more water than that does." It remains unclear exactly how the recent rains will affect the flooding, but Morgan City Mayor Tim Matte says there's little left to do but wait. "We're pretty much in watch-and-see mode," he says.

(Sources: CNN, Wall Street Journal, Joplin Globe, USA Today, AccuWeatherBaton Rouge Advocate, National Weather Service)


Free-roaming house cats and their feral cousins wander vast territories that can stretch across hundreds of acres, according to a two-year study that provides the first look at the hidden lives of outdoor cats. Using radio telemetry and an activity-tracking device to monitor the cats' every move, researchers in Illinois have now mapped out just what cats do all day when they aren't at home — or when they have no home.

The study followed 42 cats in all, which together roamed 6,286 acres in and around the cities of Urbana and Champaign, Ill. One male feral cat covered a home range of 1,351 acres, including urban, rural, residential, agricultural, forest and prairie habitats. "That particular male cat was not getting food from humans, to my knowledge, but somehow it survived out there amid coyotes and foxes," co-author Jeff Horn said in a press release. "It crossed every street in the area where it was trapped. [It navigated] stoplights, parking lots. We found it denning under a softball field during a game." Pet cats don't seem to wander quite as far as their homeless counterparts — most stay within two acres of their homes — but that's still farther than might be expected, Horn adds. "Some of the cat owners were very surprised to learn that their cats were going that far," he says. "That's a lot of back yards."

Free-roaming pet cats also enjoy more leisure time while they're out, spending only 3 percent of their time performing vigorous activity like running or stalking, the study found. That's because they have food back at home; stray cats, by comparison, are active 14 percent of the time, working harder to hunt their own food. But all cats in the study, both pets and strays, tended to stay within 984 feet of some human structure, which highlights how much they're all still domesticated animals, points out co-author Nohra Mateus-Pinilla. "Even feral cats were always within range of a building," she tells LiveScience. "That shows that even though they're feral, they still have a level of dependency on us."

(Sources: PhysOrg, LiveScience)


For just the second time in human history, a disease has been successfully eradicated from nature, the Washington Post reports. Rinderpest, a livestock disease that has been killing cattle and starving cattle ranchers for centuries, is now a thing of the past, according to veterinary epidemiologists with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. That makes it just the second disease ever to be eradicated, following the global defeat of smallpox in 1980.

Rinderpest is "the bovine equivalent of measles," the Post reports, and has plagued cattle herds dating back to ancient China and the Roman Empire. It struck Charlemagne's cows in the 8th century, and killed one-third of Ethiopia's human population in 1889 — not directly, since it doesn't infect humans, but by wiping out so many cows that it sparked a nationwide famine. It's highly contagious and also extremely lethal, killing roughly 80 percent of the animals it infects. To have finally beaten it in 2011 is a major milestone, says Juan Lubroth, chief veterinary officer for the FAO, who calls it "quite a momentous occasion for humanity." It may even be the most important breakthrough in the history of livestock science, adds William White, a rinderpest expert with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "The suffering that this disease has caused through the millennia is incredible," he says. "This is probably the greatest achievement in veterinary medicine."

The defeat of rinderpest, however, also highlights how difficult it is to fully conquer such illnesses. It took 11 years to beat smallpox, which telegraphs its presence with an obvious rash on its victims' skin (specimens of the virus also still live on in CDC labs). Polio has proven more stubborn, now persisting in eight countries more than a decade after the deadline set for its eradication back in 1988. Efforts to wipe out malaria with DDT and other pesticides also failed in the mid-20th century (although scientists are now trying again with more sophisticated methods, such as male sterilization). As one virologist tells the Post, it's easier to eradicate a livestock disease than a human one, since cows and other farm animals can be vaccinated by force. "When it came to vaccination, the cows never had a choice. But people have a choice."

(Source: Washington Post)


Evidence of water on the moon has been trickling in for several years, raising tantalizing ideas about manned lunar colonies that mine water from moon dust. And now, a new study published in the journal Science reveals the moon isn't just moist — it's practically drenched. Samples of lunar magma, first collected by NASA's Apollo missions in the 1960s and '70s, contain 100 times more water than previous studies have suggested, the researchers report, and some parts of the moon may even hold as much water as the upper mantle of Earth's crust.

Not only does the discovery change how people might look at the moon in the future, but it's also forcing scientists to rethink their ideas about its past, the BBC reports. The magma that contains the lunar water was formed in "fire fountain" volcanic events, similar to those seen on Earth in places like Hawaii, which theoretically should have boiled off much of the water in the magma. But the large amount of water detected in that magma now represents geological "time capsules," the researchers say. "What we've done now is find samples of magma that are present as 'inclusions' that are trapped inside solid crystals called olivine," geochemist and lead author Erik Hauri tells the BBC. "Because this magma is trapped inside a crystal, during an eruption it can't lose its water, so these melt inclusions preserve the original water content of the magma."

That's confusing, the researchers add, because it doesn't fit with prevailing theories about how the moon formed. Most experts agree that a Mars-sized object smashed into the Earth while it was still forming, expelling a disc of shattered, molten rocks that gradually congealed into the moon. But that kind of collision would have generated too much heat for any water to not be boiled off, and should have left the moon relatively dry. But since there is now apparently lots of water on the moon, something doesn't add up, Hauri says. "These things are not consistent with the amount of water that we find," he tells the BBC. "I think in its very basic form, the [impact theory] idea is probably still correct, but there's something fundamental about the physics of the process that we don't understand."

(Sources: BBC News, ScienceDaily)

Russell McLendon

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Photo (tornado damage in Piedmont, Okla., on May 26): ZUMA Press

Photo (cat hunting pigeons): Hans Pama/Flickr

Photo (herd of cattle): U.S. Department of Agriculture

Photo (moon seen through Earth's atmosphere): NASA

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Holiday Briefing
U.S. reels from storms, cats' secret lives revealed, deadly disease eradicated, and reports of water on the moon intensify.